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Elections in the coming year are a key opportunity for Iraqis to cement security and political progress through "legitimate and potentially more capable leaders coming into public office," the U.S. commander of the war effort said in brief interview with Stars and Stripes.

Responding to questions about the war entering its seventh year, Gen. Ray Odierno said Friday, "If Iraqis are able to transfer power peacefully through this process, then I believe they are on the path to sustainable stability, using the political process rather than violence to achieve their objectives." The local, provincial and national elections to be held this year are a chance to create "a better balance of power across the country," he said.

Odierno also said he would "not be surprised" to see the Iraqis tackle the hard issues this year: a hydrocarbon law, including how to distribute oil revenue; the boundaries of the semiautonomous Kurdish region; and power-sharing between local and central governments and among the various sects.

Those issues are commonly cited as among the most likely triggers for renewed fighting among Iraqi groups.

"With the significant decline in violence across the country, the fundamental issues about the nature of the state and power sharing have come to the forefront, bringing a new set of tensions," Odierno said. "I do not believe that either side wants war and we are working hard to ensure that some incident does not spark violence."

Still, he noted, the tensions between Arabs and Kurds have been around for nearly a century, and not an easy fix.

As the U.S. begins its withdrawal, some officials worry that it will lose much of its influence to push Iraqis on the tough issues.

"At the end of the day, these issues are ones for Iraqis to resolve. We can help encourage discussion, provide technical assistance where requested, and to convene meetings where necessary," Odierno said. "But we cannot — and should not seek to — impose solutions."

Under the security agreement signed by both nations late last year, the U.S. military is to have its combat troops out of urban areas by this summer. President Barack Obama has pledged an end to the "U.S. combat mission" by the end of August 2010.

Some 35,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in the country through the end of 2011, training Iraqis, conducting counterterrorism missions and protecting U.S. personnel and interests, officials have said.

Odierno said that the U.S. withdrawal would not weaken the training mission and that State Department-led provincial reconstruction teams would have the resources and military help they need.

"As President Obama said, our transition force will have as one of its important missions the advising, equipping and training the Iraqi security forces. The force will be tailored for that mission with adequate support and force protection," Odierno said.

"Since PRTs have been an important part of [the U.S. mission] in the past, I expect that they will continue in some form to provide support. Our structure will enable these teams to reach out broadly across Iraq."

Odierno also had words of thanks and encouragement for the U.S. troops who have served — and will serve — in Iraq.

"Their ingenuity, adaptability, courage, and dedication to our country’s security are a testament to this generation of American citizens," he said. "I am amazed by their selfless service and dedication to making Iraq a better place. I want to thank their families and friends who have steadfastly supported them through deployments."

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